In all, there are only 46,144 international students (2017-18) in India. Nearly five-times as many Indian students are at US universities alone. Moreover, only 40 foreign nationals teach across the 23 IITs, which less than 1% of all faculty members. While the number of foreign faculty is quite high at some private universities, the total number of foreigners teaching in India is overall very low. And the Government of India wants to change that.
None of India’s universities count among the top 200 in the world. The best ones – the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the IITs in Mumbai and Delhi, all of which were selected as Institutions of Eminence by the government – don’t make the cut in world rankings partly because of low levels of internationalisation. Such an international outlook is measured by the number of foreign faculty members and students and international research collaborations. It has been argued that greater internationalisation at India’s universities will improve their world rankings.
Earlier this year, the Indian government launched the ‘Study in India’ website to attract more foreign students to its universities. Now, it wants to foreign teachers to follow suit.
Last week, the Centre waived all prior security clearance requirements to hire foreign faculty members across all higher education institutions in India. Now, universities can directly hire foreigners without clearance from the Ministries of Home Affairs (MHA) and External Affairs (MEA). Knowing the ways of Indian bureaucracy, it is not hard to imagine why both institutions and interested faculty would lose interest if the clearance process took months. Mandatory clearance is now limited to foreigners from Prior Reference Category countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, foreigners of Pakistani origin, stateless persons and those who wish to visit restricted areas.
Still, while long-term employment visas for foreigners will be issued for five years, with a provision to extend for another five, political clearance for such appointments will remain mandatory. However, the process is expected to be reduced to three or four days days. In addition, the government has also decided that Overseas Citizens of India, who hold foreign passports, can be appointed as permanent faculty members without institutions having to seek MHA or MEA clearance.
Other than these initiatives, the IITs have also been taking steps to improve their internationalisation. In August, the IIT Council, the highest decision-making body for all IITs, made two important decisions. First, each IIT was free to set the fees for foreign students. The idea was to make the fees competitive for foreign people from low income countries so that many more of them would choose to study at the IITs. Second, the council will seek a relaxation to the Citizenship Act so that the IITs could hire foreigners as tenured faculty members. The Citizenship Act 1955 denies permanent jobs to foreigners at public institutions.
In early September, the Economic Times reported that the IITs would form a united front to tackle the challenge of hiring foreigners. Each well-established IIT was allocated one or more geographical areas it would try to recruit foreigners from, for itself and for other IITs. So, the ‘US market’ – considered the main ‘hunting ground’ for foreigners – was divided into three regions and allocated to IIT-Bombay (West Coast), IIT-Delhi (southern US) and IIT-Madras (East Coast). IIT-Hyderabad was made responsible for recruiting faculty members from Japan; IIT-Mandi from Scandinavia; and IIT-Ropar from Canada. While the merits of this strategy have been questioned, it does seem that the IITs are treating this matter seriously.
Finally, following up on the IIT Council’s decision in August, IIT-Delhi reduced tuition fees substantially for international students to make itself a more attractive destination for them, especially students from the neighbouring countries and from the Middle East and Africa.
Taken together, these initiatives may help the IITs attract more foreign students and teachers to their institutions. However, challenges remain, especially for hiring scientists and those in the technology sector, who have many good options to consider.
For example, the IITs will struggle to offer competitive salaries, more so since the Indian rupee continues to lose ground to the US dollar. Second, many IITs are located in far-flung places that don’t offer the comforts of larger cities and are thus not particularly attractive to foreigners. Third, even large cosmopolitan cities have their fair share of problems. For example, a recent report found that Delhi’s toxic air was forcing every third senior corporate executive to decline job offers in the national capital region. Finally, the nature of India’s current politics may also force both students and teachers to think twice before choosing India.
If hiring foreign faculty is a priority for the IITs, then they should consider diversifying and expanding their humanities and social science programmes. That could help attract more foreign faculty than in the sciences and engineering.
Pushkar has a PhD in political science from McGill University and is currently director of The International Centre Goa. The views expressed here are personal.